David Baskin had been noticing a pattern when soldiers like himself finish their service in the Israel Defense Forces. In the kibbutz -- the communal settlement -- where he and his fellow soldiers lived while serving, the soldiers would discard piles of belongings that they didn't want to take with them. They'd leave behind books, clothing, sheets, electronics, and all kinds of other useful household objects.
So instead of letting the items go to waste, Baskin started collecting them to give away to people in need. "My entire room was bursting at the seams with stuff," recalled the Jewish Evanston native.
He packed the things up and donated them to an orphanage in Israel serving all faiths and ethnicities. When he saw how much good the donated items could do, he started calling around for more donations from other kibbutzim hosting lone soldiers like him-people from other countries who join the Israeli army without immediate family living in Israel. From that concept, Baskin formed the non-profit Tel Aviv- based organization called Ani Shlishi.
Ani Shlishi supports at-risk individuals in Israeli communities through donations of clothing and other household items. The organization is sponsored by Garin Tzabar, a non-profit which helps Israel Defense Forces (IDF) lone soldiers feel comfortable during their time away from family in Israel.
The items are donated by both current and former IDF lone soldiers because, as Ani Shlishi's tagline puts it: "Service doesn't end when we take off the uniform."
So far, Baskin's organization has helped people in need across the religious and ethnic spectrum at homeless shelters, orphanages, a women's and children's center, and a school and athletic league geared to both Arabs and Jews. He says his dream his to one day open a thrift shop that sells old items, and donate the profits to people in need.
The name for "Ani Shlishi" -- Hebrew for "I am third" -- was inspired by Baskin's late friend Ross, a former high school teacher and assistant baseball coach at Baskin's alma mater at Evanston Township High School. Ross, who died of cancer two years ago, had lived his life by the philosophy that first comes "the greater good"; second, comes "others"; and then, finally, 'I am third."
"It was the idea of being a selfless, generous, kind person whether it was in the prism of being a teammate on a baseball team or just as a human being," Baskin said of his late friend.
Baskin's own desire to be generous, he said, dates back to growing up in Evanston. His parents, he said, always taught him to do what was right. And, too, he has always been close to his grandfather, now 95, who would tell his grandson stories about immigrating from Germany to the United States just before the Holocaust. When his grandpa arrived, he joined the United States Army, through which he would return to Europe to help liberate the concentration camps.
Baskin would listen intently to his grandpa's stories and, when Baskin was old enough, he was compelled to join the army too-but this time, the Israeli Army.
In 2013, he enlisted in the IDF. He served for almost three years, spending much of his active duty service in the Special Forces unit of the Nachal Infantry Brigade. One of his jobs was shuttling Syrians, injured in their brutal civil war, to Israel for medical treatment. Through his humanitarian work on the Syrian/Israel border, Baskin would watch entrenched stereotypes melt away.
"People who had believed for their entire lives that Jews and Israel were evil now questioned that [belief] because [Jews] saved their mother's or daughter's life," he said. "Through helping people, you can shatter these very rigid perceptions and that's inspirational."
He says he hopes he can continue to shatter misconceptions about people through Ani Shlishi, which serves both Jews and Arabs in Israel, a country where more than a fifth of the country lives in poverty.
"We're creating connections," said Baskin, who now lives in Tel Aviv. "Little by little, we're changing those perceptions, humanizing each other, and making the world a better place."
For more information, visit www.anishlishi.org.